For Progressives, What Happens in the Vacuum After Trump?

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For Progressives, What Happens in the Vacuum After Trump?

I first believed that Trump would be a one-term president after the national elections of 2017, and nothing that’s happened since has changed my mind. Every time Americans have had a chance to vote on Trumpism since his initial victory, they’ve rejected it. This isn’t meant to be a prediction or a proclamation; god knows weird things can happen, and even if he’s a clear loser, his apparatchiks are plainly preparing to drag out the results and muddle the outcome, creating shades of doubt where there are none. I don’t view Trump’s loss as fait accompli. That said, any honest look at the evidence points to a Biden victory, and a significant one at that.

So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it comes to pass. Trump loses, reluctantly whines his way out of office, and Biden takes over in January. There are many people in this country who would take a well-deserved moment to breathe a sigh of relief, and I’m one of them. Even as a Bernie Sanders diehard who remains very cynical about Joe Biden and Democrats like him, I want Trump out of the oval office and, as much as possible, out of my life. It’s been a long, exhausting four years, and I’m not even one of the people whose lives have been rendered materially worse by his presidency. What’s more, giving this man another four years would be an obvious disaster for a country that is already staring into the abyss of illegitimacy verging on systemic collapse. The anger, the violence, and the destabilization would all be accelerated, and the polarization of our people would grow closer and closer to a state of all-out cultural war. Meanwhile, we’d take exactly zero strides on the environment, and we can only imagine what horrific anti-immigrant, anti-poor policies Stephen Miller could dream up with another term whispering into Trump’s ear.

In other words, take that sigh. Enjoy it. But here are a few things that won’t happen in the aftermath of a Trump loss:

1. We won’t be any closer to making strides on climate change

Look at this tweet:

It’s only one person, and it’s only one issue, but at the same time it’s basically all you need to know about the environmental “policy” of mainstream Democrats. There will be cosmetic improvements, we’ll rejoin the Paris Agreement, and the framework of the approach won’t be quite so identifiably negligent, but…well, nothing will really change. We’re losing our planet faster than ever before, but the party leadership is so beholden to Big Energy, and so terrified of alienating small segments of working class voters—especially in key swing states—that they’re not interested in taking the dramatic steps needed to at least attempt to reverse the hazardous course we’re on. Leadership sometimes requires making necessary moves on issues that don’t enjoy overwhelming approval, but instead the Democrats can’t even consider a ban on fracking, a process that has been proven to damage land, deplete and often poison water supplies, and release methane that exacerbates global warming.

The concept of a Green New Deal, or any similar comprehensive action, is still anathema to the majority of the powerful Democrats representing us in Washington D.C. Biden is not the president who is going to change any of this, and it is, by far, our most pressing collective problem as a human species.

2. We won’t be any closer to progressive policy like Medicare for All

Putting the environment aside, the structural change that would instantly do the most good for the most people, especially the poor, is a universal healthcare system. We have the money and the resources to do it, but we don’t have the willpower. This, again, is because Democrats in power are flooded with money from insurance and pharmaceutical lobbyists, who in turn flood the people with mindless, easily debunked propaganda that the mainstream media is only too happy to regurgitate, and we’re no closer to where we started. Again, the Biden/Harris ticket is not the one that will fundamentally alter our current state of affairs. It’s good that they won’t actively try to kill Obamacare, but the status quo is painful for so many people and that’s not going to shift one iota. Biden has already said he’d veto a Medicare for All plan, and Harris endorsed it for about a day before she proved to lack the necessary backbone for the fight.

It’s not just M4A, either. Even in an ideal world with a Democratic House and Senate, it’s going to be like pulling teeth to receive even minor concessions on everything from the minimum wage to rent reform to free public college to you-name-it.

3. “Trumpism” as a popular force isn’t going anywhere

Try this on for wishful thinking:

There was a great tweet recently that I’ve unfortunately lost track of which makes the exact opposite point: The so-called “fever” of the GOP has been around at least since Barry Goldwater, and its roots can be traced to southern Democrats long before that. Over and over again, people have dreamed that the defeat of some particularly odious Republican will also kneecap the movement and “restore sanity.”

It never has, and it’s not going to this time either. Trumpism, for lack of a better term, is not some sudden phenomenon. It’s the logical evolution of decades and centuries of outright bigotry, dog-whistling, and the forced polarization of the American people. Trump could lose, concede with something approaching dignity, and tell his supporters to stand down (note: none of this will happen, but bear with me), and it wouldn’t calm the urges of his most rabid supporters. I’d bet anything that there will be isolated incidents of violence on election day and afterward, and the hatred and suspicion that Trump has helped unleash is not something you can contain in a day, a month, a year, or even a decade. His most dangerous supporters make up a minority, but they’re a terrifying minority, they’ve infiltrated part of our law enforcement establishment (the extent of this is, I believe, frequently overstated, but it’s still a concern), and they aren’t going anywhere.

We’ll be fighting this ideology for a lifetime, whether we like it or not, and people will pay for this fight with their lives.


I say all of this not to be a Debbie Downer, but to caution against a victory dance. I’ll never forget the night when Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election. I was in Manhattan, and the atmosphere on the streets that night, and in the ensuing days, made it feel like we had emerged from a dark tunnel and into a beautiful future.

That was not the case. Even if you still believe Obama was an effective president (like many progressives, I found him utterly disappointing in almost every way), there’s no denying where we find ourselves a decade later: In an even darker, scarier tunnel.

We all want to be believe in catharsis, and I think liberals, with their conception of the world as a comic book battle between superheroes and arch-villains, are particularly susceptible. But if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that saviors don’t come from on high in America, and complacency leads down a dark path that could land us in a worse spot ten years from now than we can even conceive of today.

So, what to do after our sigh of relief? I won’t pretend that the pat answer of “keep fighting, keep up the pressure, keep instigating on a local and national level” is remotely satisfying. The left took a major hit in the primaries when a united Democratic center recovered from some early blows and trounced the Sanders campaign. It is difficult to imagine the future we want, and the leftist movement seems hamstrung—not just by the center and the right, but from within as well.

And yet, it’s still the best answer there is. As Noam Chomsky recently argued, the vote is probably the least important way a citizen can exercise his or her right to influence the political process. Collective pressure must mount in a way that forces politicians to act because they fear that failing to do so will cost them their jobs. Right now, the left doesn’t have that kind of power—capitalist institutions do. The only weapon at our disposal are the people who suffer in this country, and mobilizing them is, without a doubt, the only way to bring about to change. One of the few “allies” in this fight is late-stage capitalism itself, which continues to make conditions so difficult for so many people that, if nothing else, the progressive message becomes easier to sell over time.

The mission feels difficult-to-futile, but it’s also the only option besides giving up. Victory, as a progressive might define it, is a hazy and distant prospect, but we should all know with certainty that a Joe Biden presidency is merely a placeholder. It saves us from a worse nightmare, but it doesn’t end the nightmare we’re currently sharing. Vote to get rid of Trump, but don’t succumb to the impulse to believe in the Democrats, even though they’re a useful tool for now. Enjoy the victory, if it comes, and then remember the real goal.

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